Using Real World Examples to Teach Sustainability
Pedagogic guidance for teaching using real world examples
Multiple pedagogic strategies can be used to incorporate real examples into the classroom. These include teaching with case studies or with investigative cases, field experiences such as field labs or student research, and using local data to teach about issues. If you live in an area where it is difficult to teach using the local environment, such as urban areas, try using videos, news articles, online media sources, photos from past field trips, and discussion of previous experiences in consulting and research to engage students. The module on teaching urban students, from Pedagogy in Action provides information for creative and effective ways to teach in an urban setting and includes example activities. In addition, Teaching using socioscientific issues, from Pedagogy in Action, describes how controversial issues can be used as a starting point for students' investigation of real world problems.
Real world problems are inherently engaging since they tend to be meaningful and applicable to students' lives, either directly or indirectly (e.g. through the media). If you're not sure where to begin, the tips below can get you started. These tips were compiled from small group discussions among workshop participants at the 2013 workshops: Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences and Teaching Environmental Justice: Interdisciplinary Approaches.
- Introduce students to your research - make it personal. It inspires students.
- Task students with bringing examples of real-world experiences and problems to the class.
- Bring experience into the classroom through guest speakers, engaging students in case studies, or field work (see examples below).
- Engage students in community work. It can provide a profound life changing experience. It is hard to do, particularly in the absence of institutional support. The community connection takes time, commitment, and sensitivity. It has a lot of potential benefits on both sides but shouldn't be undertaken lightly. Learn more about service learning.
- Bring in ethics (e.g. Hurricane Sandy preparedness and current lawsuits): this makes connections between disciplines and is centered around current events. What are your responsibilities as a citizen, property owner, or professional?
- Develop empathy for others' life experience and point of view. This is central to building concern for and attention to environmental justice. Some strategies for building this perspective include sensory mapping, real or cyber ethnography, service or community based learning, literature and media assignments, role-playing and games that look at contrasting narrative, arc of story, point of view, and evolution through time. Reflection is an important tool and can provide a gradeable product in the form of a journal, paper, or exam/assignment question.
- Remember to maintain hope and agency in the face of long-lasting complex challenges related to sustainability. Studying success stories, people who have made a difference, and actions that give hope can be effective. There is a tension between maintaining hope, and understanding the full extent of how complex and deeply entrenched the problems are.
- While we all desire our students to become actors in making our civilization more environmentally just, there are a variety of strategies for approaching this in different instructional settings. They range from developing empathy and awareness to requiring students to engage in service or advocacy. In all cases, faculty should be careful not to dictate the students perspective or approach. The frame is to learn how to act, not to be told to act in a certain way.
- There is a strong tension between educating and engaging students in Environmental Justice and respecting the affected communities. This requires attention, preparation and skill. Anthropologists and sociologists have experience with these issues that can be brought to bear. Listening, sensitivity to context, and reflexivity are essential. While we have expertise to offer, we must refrain from removing agency to ourselves.
- Having to make and negotiate decisions in a group takes patience, time, and skill, and is something that environmental justice communities have to do under exceptionally "high-stakes" problems.
Effective strategies for teaching using real world problems
- Remember to consider your audience: local hazards might be more effective to consider and timeliness may be an issue (e.g. Loma Prieta, Mt. St. Helens may bring blank stares).
- Bring in professional reports. Where possible, incorporate more of the history of the project. Also, there are public domain reports that could be incorporated into instruction and activities.
- If teaching about mineral resources, look for case studies of mineral resources of geologic interest that have already been exploited. These are more likely to have data, geologic maps, etc. in the public domain and accessible. (E.g. Yerington batholith, Nevada)
- Mapping Environmental Justice: The Geography of Population and Pollution by Christopher Cusack
- Using Media to Document Public Attitudes on Waste by Sya Buryn Kedzior
- Hazardous Waste and Toxics: Real Data for Real Places by Richard Kujawa
- Assessing Water Resource Demand in New York City , by Kyle M. Monahan, adapted from an original activity by Richard F. Bopp
- Coastal Management Case Study
- Using Google Earth to Measure Seacliff Erosion Rates
- Impact of climate change on endangered fish population in Pyramid Lake
Field experiences can range in size and type, from a single class activity, multi-week or semester-long project, semester or year long independent project, or a class service learning project. Students can also get field experiences through internships that can both prepare them for the workforce or provide a seamless path to a job after graduation.
Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop may help you get started:Example Activities
- Think Like a Geologist Field Trip to Downtown San Jose, by LeAnne Teruya
- Teaching in the Field SERC site guide contains links to SERC-hosted projects related to teaching in the field and includes example teaching activities, field courses, and teaching tips.
- Field-Based Learning from Research on Learning
- Teaching Geoscience in the Field - from On the Cutting Edge
- Undergraduate Research from Pedagogy in Action
- Using the Local Environment to Teach about Sustainability
- Service Learning
- "Hometown stream" project - download and analysis of NWIS data, of a stream each student has experience with.
- Use real storm data for rainfall-runoff modeling
- Statewide hazard databases can provide specific data for analysis. If it's not available for a specific area, task students with selecting a proxy among several imperfect alternative locations and explain the limitations.
- Use large real data sets (such as geotech information from State Dept. of Transportation for a Highway widening project) to complete multiple exercises (e.g., rock mass quality, discontinuity analysis, rock slope stability analysis)
- Critically analyze professional reports
- Have students practice modeling in Excel, to step through inputs, computational steps, outputs. See what's in the blackbox. Do a technical write-up and presentation of the programming, the project. Practical applications of what students are programming.
- Finding Soil Material for a Construction Project, by Tej Gautam
- Assessing Water Resource Demand in New York City, by Kyle Monahan, adapted from an original activity on NYC water supply losses along NYC aqueduct from Richard F. Bopp, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Note: this activity can be easily adapted to other cities.
Compiled by Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop participants.
Useful data and tools related to water:
- Precipitation Data for Northeast: http://precip.eas.cornell.edu/
- Historical Weather & Precip: http://www.wunderground.com/history/
- Hudson River Flow, Salinity and Precip: http://www.hrecos.org/joomla/index.php
- NCDC Climate Data: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/climatedata.html
- NCDC General Data: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/
- USGS Water Data portal: http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis
- Precip Data: http://www.cocorahs.org/
- Water Balance summary reports at stations with ET gages- these are great graphs showing the balance of precip and ET at gages throughout the country: http://cocorahs.org/ViewData/StationWaterBalanceSummary.aspx
- http://www.wunderground.com is also a great source of storm event precip data with very short time intervals. Scroll down to the bottom of the page at any weather station, choose a date under History and Almanac to get hourly observations.
Useful online tools on life cycle assessment:
- Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES), from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an online tool that can be used to introduce the economic aspects of building materials
- Sustainable Site Remediation (SURF)-monitor site remotely rather than driving out to a site
- SiteWise - developed jointly by the Navy, Army Corps of Engineers, and Battelle, SiteWise is a publicly available tool for conducting a baseline environmental footprint of a remedial technology.